How it works: AK's new computer-generated bail system
The State of Alaska is using a brand new system based on a computer-generated algorithm to help determine whether someone charged with a crime should be released on bail before trial and who should stay locked up.
A tour of the Alaska Pretrial Enforcement Division's work area revealed an office space under construction, soon to be as new as the type of work Director Geri Fox says her division is embarking on.
"We've never had the kinds of options that we do now," said Fox.
The division is a delayed component of Senate Bill 91, which went into effect on January 1, 2018. While the budget includes positions for 65 armed pretrial enforcement officers, Fox says they've currently filled about 45.
Officers are tasked with providing pretrial risk assessments to the courts for each person charged with a crime, then, in some cases, supervising those who are granted release before trial.
The risk assessment tool gives judges a computer-generated number between one and 10 for a defendant, which indicates they're either low-, medium-, or high-risk for two factors: How likely the person is to fail to appear for future court hearings, and how likely a defendant is to commit new crimes while out on bail before trial.
For each risk factor, the algorithm uses six data points to come up with a total score, then the higher of the two scores is what is given to judges. The data points include age at first arrest, total number of prior FTA (Failure to Appear) warrants, and whether the person is currently booked on property or motor-vehicle (non-DUI) charges.
The tool doesn't take into account factors like the nature of the charges, the possible sentence, potential harm to the public, weight of evidence, a defendant's ties to the community, or their personal financial resources.
What the tool can't determine for judges is how dangerous someone might be.
"There is no quality dangerousness measurement yet. I hope we get it, 'cause I would call that my crystal ball. I'd love to have that," said Fox, adding that the assessment is still a vital tool. "We're crazy if we don't look to the data. That's just foolish. So, if we know that defendants that do certain things present a greater risk to the community, and we know that because we've done our homework and our outcome measurements and our math, then why would we not want to use that information? Should it be the whole decision? No way, but it's a piece."
Fox says more than 4,000 statistical calculations of Alaska's population data went into developing the tool that is unique to the state.
With the cost of housing someone in jail at $150 a day, Fox says in many cases, it makes more economic sense to let low-risk offenders out so they can maintain employment rather than waiting for days or weeks for them to collect $250 to $500 for bail.
The risk assessment tool has already been brought up in court during a bail hearing for a high-profile triple homicide suspect, Anthony Pisano, last week.
Defense attorney Julia Moudy championed the new system, telling the judge, "Bail should depend on the person. Bail should not just depend on the charges [...] the legislature clearly wants bail to be decided objectively, and this is the most objective way to do it. Everybody knows that if you come into jail and you want to be released on bail, and these are the points you accumulate, this is going to be your release."
She also said her client, Pisano, a 20-year decorated veteran with no prior criminal history, would be considered under the new system a "low risk " individual.
"His risk level for failing to appear is a zero. His risk level for violating his conditions of release is a zero," said Moudy.
The judge pointed out that the state statute specifically says the new system only applies to cases in which the offense was committed on or after January 1, 2018.
Fox said in a case like Pisano's, the judge has 12 other factors to consider beyond the assessment score, including the nature of the charges.
"The offense against that person, what they're charged with, is absolutely part of the decision-making process, and in some areas, the judge can completely overcome this score, and I would argue, in that case, the judge has a lot of discretion," said Fox.
While the assessment tool recommends, and in some cases requires, release for low-risk offenders, there are exceptions for sex offenses, domestic violence offenses, DUI offenses, failure to appear in court offenses, violation of a release offenses, and person offenses, like murder.
"You've got one guy who does a really scary thing one time-- that is a special circumstance-- and the court needs the discretion and they have it," said Fox.
That's discretion for judges to treat the tool as just that, a tool, leaving the ultimate decision up to a judge, instead of a computer.
Pisano is scheduled for a bail hearing on Thursday, January 11.
While his defense attorney told the judge last week that he is "low risk" on both factors the risk assessment calculates, KTVA checked with the Department of Corrections Wednesday and was told by a spokesperson that the Pretrial Enforcement Division never did an official assessment on Pisano, as he is not eligible for the new program.
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